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A tale of influencers

Published on 22 July 2020
Updated on 05 April 2024

Diplo Wisdom Circle

Behold America: A history of America First and the American Dream (Sarah Churchwell, 2018, p. 356):

History is not ancestral memory or collective tradition. It is what people learned from priests, schoolmasters, the writers of history books and the compilers of magazine articles and television programmes. 

Eric Hobsbawn

Influencers are as old as Adam and Eve – the snake and Eve took on this role in turn. Shamans and priests were influencers or, as in China, a Confucian bureaucracy. Next to the top-down influencers, each community had its local influencers as well, often emergent personalities. Then, the process was verbal, relying on speech, rituals, or images.

With the Renaissance, secular influencers took center stage, reaching a first high in the age of Enlightenment. The Penny Press and newspapers spread political ideas to an expanding, literate readership. Industrialisation spawned economic influencers – marketing. Since then, the influencing techniques in both areas have commingled.

For the first time, the process could be documented – print, photo, and recording allowed the historian or social scientist to trace the overt and covert ways of the influencers and the outcome in the people’s actions. At the same time, we began to understand the link between the message and the surrounding social and economic context. One could begin to guess the reasons for success and failure of an idea – but also the essential role of happenstance.

The influencers’ message yields meaning for each listener. The addressees link it to their experience and, in so doing, alter or transform the meaning to suit them. Across people, the message’s words become a useful shorthand – a cliché, a rhetorical device – for a complex set of underlying meanings – pars pro toto. The message is thus and always highly fluid, both across listeners and time. ‘Language is collective, and protean.’ A message’s spread and success depend on the degree of fuzziness. As we agree on the words while intending different meanings, influencers use the fuzziness to create coalitions for common action.

The author has charted the ever-changing content of two messages that have dominated political discourse of the USA in the first half of the twentieth century – and now suddenly again. They are AMERICAN DREAM and AMERICA FIRST. Here a personal synopsis.

American Dream

The ‘American Dream’ is not dead, we just have no idea what it means anymore.

The ‘American Dream’ emerged as a progressive shorthand in the heydays of the Gilded Age. It aspired to rein in rampant and unregulated capitalism. (A spokesman for this view was Walter Lippman.) It meant grappling with inequality, sharing benefits and abilities, and restraining monopoly power. Antitrust laws were meant to protect the small producer, not the consumers.

Emergent consumerism transformed the meaning. Those who could not make it rich in the stock market of the Jazz Age, at least shared in the feeling of being rich by using aspirational goods like soap, the motor vehicle, and other mass-consumption goods.

Come the Great Depression, the ‘American Dream’ re-focused on social welfare. Roosevelt articulated it as ‘Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.’ It was a collective dream of empowerment as well as mutual trust and dependency. The modern collective expressed itself in the state, protecting its citizens from authoritarianism, plutocracy, and oligarchy, as tyranny went corporate, while ensuring that economic poverty not become moral poverty. The phrase echoed the shift from Locke’s ‘life, liberty, and property’ to Jefferson’s ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’

By the end of the decade, however, the meaning was changing surreptitiously. WWII muddied the shift. In 1947, as the world painfully picked up the pieces of WWII, President Truman reformulated his predecessor’s liberties by replacing freedom from want and fear with ‘freedom of enterprise’. This was an opening salvo to the Cold War. Political rights were to be enshrined in the Declaration of Human Rights – a list of negative liberties. In parallel, the West studiously wanted to avoid the balancing inclusion of economic rights as positive rights. So orphaned, prosperity merged with the negative set. The Austrian political and economic school was also in the ascendency, for whom any state involvement was the ‘Way to serfdom’. On a personal note, I’d like to add the emergence, after 1938, of the infinitely popular superhero comics (Wonder Woman, Superman, Batman, and the many avatars). All could dream the personal dream of hidden omnipotence under the cover of mediocrity.

If anything, today’s ‘American Dream’ is the opposite of its original meaning. It rejects all social responsibility for a libertarian creed of personal power and right. Rather than a collective tradition, the message of the American dream today reads like individual stories within a non-existing frame story or hallucination.

America First

History is the raw material for nationalist or ethnic or fundamentalist ideologies, as poppies are the raw material for heroin addiction.

If the story of the ‘American Dream’ is one of a battle between two antithetic sub-tropes vying for control of the all-embracing one above, ‘America First’, always a political slogan. Its core message remains the same: affirming the entitlement of the old prerogatives of white, Protestant, male establishment power. What varies is the extent to which its overt and covert components are explicated – the balance between words over code. (Many call the covert code dog-whistle message.)

‘America First’ emerged at the end of the nineteenth century as American ethno-nationalism one that. It tried to strike a balance between immigration and assimilation; between exclusion (Chinese, Japanese, Jews and non-Nordic races) and inclusion. It aimed at ‘hyphenated Americans’, urging them to place their country of adoption over that of origin. In parallel, by acts and deeds it revived the theme of racial discrimination after the establishment of Jim Crow. The Second Ku Klux Klan spread from Georgia in 1915 to become a nationwide political force. Lynching was not far behind.

President Wilson used America First in 1915 to justify the country’s non-intervention in WWI – the USA would not take sides but bring its view of an orderly world to the warrying parties. Wilson’s 14 points were the internationalist realisation. It soon turned to world-scale jingoism in the public’s mind.

In the two decades before WWII, the overt part of ‘America First’ were its links with Fascism and Nazism. Against Roosevelt’s social democracy, the movement proposed an alternative, corporate way of structuring and running a state for the benefit of the political and economic elite. Charles Lindbergh was the face of it, until he overplayed his cards and was discredited. This overt part disappeared with the world conflict.

Racism traversed the war and took on systemic, i.e., covert forms. The post-WWII housing projects were kept ‘homogeneous,’ a code-word for segregation. The charter school movement emerged as the riposte to school desegregation. As the civil rights movement in the 1950s brought progress to the Afro-Americans, resentment built up: suddenly law and order took precedence over social programs. Mass incarceration and the weaponising of the police ensued.

It took Donald Trump to let the systemic character of US racism emerge into the glare of the political light. He made his political fortune to a good extent by trying to delegitimise President Barack Obama through the birther issue. Trump’s election has brought together an unholy alliance of racist, fascist, and libertarian feelings, coupled with a mastery in the manipulation of minds and news that could bring democracy down.


The study of public and political phrases as their meaning evolves through time and intersects with context and chance, is essential. We are just at the beginning. The present discursive approach leaves, in my view, much to be desired. On the one side, we need better tools of visualisation – so as better to grasp the complexity. We must integrate history, anthropology, and social psychology, so that we can establish hypotheses and create models we can falsify. We need to inoculate our study against anachronism. And after that, we may humbly, and in good faith, accept the lack of coherence that underlies historical and political processes.

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